I remember sitting in the courtyard, during that same conference call with Sylvia Boorstein,looking at the magenta blossoms on my sprawling succulent in the orange pot. The blooms sprang to life the morning after our terrible windstorm, the greater part of a day and a night, gusts from 70 to 80 miles per hour, the worst I’ve lived through. Through it all I was working on a deadline to develop a website for my July writing retreat. It was impossible for me to give it my undivided attention. No matter what I did I couldn’t separate myself from my fear. The walls of my trailer shook and rattled in the wind. I said metta. I prayed all of us would be safe and unharmed–all the birds and small wild things, me and my neighbors inside our tin cans. But the next morning, when I saw how my succulent had burst into wild magenta bloom in spite of that terrible onslaught, that unbelievable battering, I thought, we need to be like this succulent. We need to respond to what is playing out now on our national stage with our own bright blossoming. Indeed, in the pink pussycat hats, the women’s marches, the way our judicial system is responding, the immigration protests, the country is doing just that. I have been especially bolstered by the fact that our “founding fathers” created our democracy with safeguards. I hadn’t counted on that. And again, I am proud to be a Californian in the midst of it all. I see our legislators and our governor trying to stand up, trying to do the right thing. I read an article the other day about a man in Los Angeles who is offering trainings to local activist organizations, teaching the self-care skills people will have to master in order to not be completely overwhelmed by the needs they are trying to meet now, particularly for those who serve the undocumented immigrant community. He sits them in a circle, places items for an altar at its center, let’s them talk about the toll these times are taking. And I want to honor each of them, every one of them, of you, for standing up. For being in the front lines. For giving response. For being our own fierce spring.
I’m taking Sylvia Boorstein’s online class that spans the year, “Mindfulness in Everyday Life.“ On a conference call in April, a woman asked her for advice on how to navigate the disturbing reality of life now in the United States with our sitting president. It comes up again and again in the meditation communities I’m a part of. I’m luckier than many in this, I think, in that I only read the newspaper. I imagine it’s easier than watching TV news. I can glance at headlines, skim stories, put the paper down when the clenching in my belly tells me to. I can look at still photographs of him, appalled by the ugly twist of his lips. It’s not as unsettling as listening to him “live.” When the question comes up in the conference call, I want to say what I believe is true. I can’t remember now if there was just not enough time left to raise my hand and speak, or if I hesitated, held myself back. Was I just self-conscious? Or did I convince myself what I wanted to say was too obvious? What I wanted to say is we have to have faith. Buddhists don’t work with that concept much. I think it’s because Buddhism is not something we need to take on faith. The Buddha didn’t expect that. He told us to try things out, to see for ourselves. So it makes sense to me that Buddhists may have more trouble in a time like this, a time when we are “forced” to watch an overweight, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic white man try to dismantle all the good that’s been put into place in recent years. Faith may not be an ordinary part of the equation, but we need it now. We need to believe the times we’re living in are a reaction to all the good progress we’ve made around the world. We need to believe this is the “getting worse” part before things get better. We need to believe this is not the beginning of the end, only the last-ditch effort to roll things back before we move together even more fully into the kind of world we want to live in always.
Twenty-nine years ago today, on April 18th, 1988, I quit smoking. The year before, I tried to quit eleven times, but this was the first one that stuck. It ran unbroken thirteen years and still holds sway over most of these past three decades. Because of this I notice April 18th out in the world. It’s a red number day for me. Isn’t April 18th the day Harprita had to have all the potions decocted and the twenty-seven soft blue bundles wrapped and ready for the ship in the novel I’m reading? And isn’t April 18th even a day in Angels in America? Is it the San Francisco earthquake, maybe?
I lean back in the sturdy metal chair in the courtyard, the big round cup of hot tea cradled in my hands. And then I remember. April 18th is the day you and I first laid eyes on each other on that southbound 80 bus. It’s the day I went home to hear that message on my machine from a possible sperm donor. That’s why I know the date, why I was able to trace it back later when I was halfway in love with you and the morning we first saw each other on the bus counted. When I think of you and I that first day at the back of the bus, I can feel the awkwardness between us. Because I think you scowl at me, I avoid looking in your direction and try instead to adjust to sitting in the stupid side-facing seat. I fuss and fidget some. I sigh in exasperation. I never stop being aware of you reading the paper nearby.
Didn’t our eyes meet again later on that first bus ride? Wasn’t it a less guarded look, over the tops of your glasses? Did we both look away? I think I may have watched you reading, too, that morning, chewing on your bottom lip, not looking at me. I know we talked about it years later. You wanted me that morning. I didn’t have a clue you felt that way then, me and my misinterpreted scowl. It still makes the corner of my lips curl to remember. You wanted me the first time you laid eyes on me. There’s a surprising satisfaction in knowing this. I am the cat licking cream from my paws.
Buddhist teachings keep me guessing. Depending on the teacher and the topic, I am reassured or doubtful, suspicious or yielding, intrigued or cross-eyed. Often things just make sense, ring true to me, familiar, like the life I’ve been living for decades. Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing something. Do I only think I understand, have been observing these same things in my life and in the world around me all these years? I’m not sure what makes me doubt myself, but doubt arises. And I’m not sure what inclines me to always calibrate. Is this something I already know? Do I only think I know it? Maybe it’s an old fear, not being enough. Maybe it’s only hubris. Or maybe it’s tied to the way I bristle over sentences that begin with, “Those of us who’ve been practicing for years—” The speaker means a formal sitting practice. But what if we’ve been practicing “off the cushion” all this time? I love sitting practice. I suspect it accelerates things. And it feels like a luxury, all that stillness, all that not doing. Of late I tend to divide my time between the “long breathing in, long breathing out” I’ve been learning and my metta practice. Since I decided to offer the writers retreat this summer in Joshua Tree, I have to bring myself back more than usual, my mind and heart busy dreaming up ideas. I’ve begun sitting with my eyes open more and more. I think I may be giving myself more permission to do what feels right to me, become less concerned with following the rules. But there’s still a part of me who wants to “do it right,” a part of me who wants to know if I’m delusional about the things I think I know. The other day people were talking about feeling one with the mountain. That seems easy and natural to me. But on the surface, I don’t buy the “no self” spiel. Because there is a me. There is my portion of spirit housed in this body. Unique in place and time. Never again will the two be joined, this same form and spirit. But it doesn’t stop me from feeling one with the mountain or the moon or the desert rat dying in my courtyard on a summer afternoon. Or with the ant I stepped on yesterday because I must have hurt him when I was sweeping the courtyard. I put my sandal down on him, my chest aching, to end his tortured movements. I may not buy the “no self” deal, but I do know we’re all one, the mountain and the moon and the rat and the ant—and me.
I’m doing sitting practice on a Thursday morning in March. All the windows are open. I can hear the low hum of the swamp cooler in the back room, feel puffs of air against my skin. When I open my eyes the bougainvillea in the courtyard catches my heart. I close them again, take a long breath in, a long breath out. I feel a familiar tightness in my belly, like it might be messing with my breath. I stay with the feeling, sink deeper. All at once I know this part of me has been afraid for 59 years. The knowing floors me. I’m heartbroken for her. Her dedication humbles me, decades of being afraid on my behalf, wanting to keep me safe. I talk to her. I tell her how sorry I am she’s been afraid all these years and I didn’t know. I invite her to let go. I’ll be afraid again, I say, but you no longer need to hold it all the time. I am bowled over by her sheer strength, to have held this fear all my life. I cry, cradle my belly with my palms, my forearms, both sad and grateful for her sacrifice. I’ve known my fat was a way to protect myself, but this deepens my sense of this. Was my body trying to cocoon this ball of ancient fear, buffer her, maybe, so her efforts might be just a little easier? It’s okay now, I tell her. We’re safe here, I say. We’re safe here doing sitting practice beside the open sliding glass door, the house finch chattering in the courtyard. (Well, safe barring maybe an earthquake, I think.) I tell her she can come on duty now only as needed. You don’t need to do this all the time, I say. I don’t know if she can unfurl just like that, but I vow to remind her again and again. I am still made dumb by what she’s done, this gallantry, the immensity of this feat. It’s okay, I tell her again. It’s okay to rest now in between, I say. Rest, the way the deer’s body relaxes when the danger’s passed, the way she returns to ease, nibbles more grass. Rest, the way the white-crowned sparrows drop down one by one from the bougainvillea after I walk by, going back to eating seeds from the ground, talking music. Rest, I tell her. Sleep, even, if you can. I’ll be right here.
Three weeks ago the mockingbirds began to sing. When I’m lucky I hear one singing nearby in the middle of the night. I’m hoping he comes closer. Last Wednesday when I walked out of my class at the Annenberg Center the air smelled like heaven. I stopped, eyes closed, taking in deep breaths of it. The scent was so familiar, but I couldn’t recognize it. I opened my eyes to the lemon blossoms in the tree above me. Every year I forget how strong the fragrance is, how it finds you everywhere, even when you can’t spot a tree. The sun’s been moving north at a steady pace, all stealth until now when you see it’s almost halfway through its journey. It sinks behind the mountains as I write, facing me straight on now. I’m sitting inside with the swamp cooler on and the sliding glass door wide open to the courtyard. My neighbor’s tree, the one who hosted goldfinches like ornaments all winter, has budded into leaf. I think: don’t tell me we don’t have seasons here. I think: don’t let it bend you out of shape, Riba, annoyed now at all those imaginary people who like to claim we don’t. I’m doing my sitting practice facing the mountains, and my mind is crazy busy. Yesterday, too. I wonder what’s going on. I’ve been looking into rooms, wanting to begin to teach a writing class, give a workshop, lead a writing circle. I’m even fantasizing about offering a retreat, too, maybe in Joshua Tree. This is where my mind zooms today again and again while I’m supposed to be meditating. Could we get a cluster of their studio cabins all together? Could people bring their own food, plan for a pot luck or two? Can I keep it affordable? Do I charge a fee for my efforts or let people offer dana? Do I teach craft or just guide us in entering in? I am gone so long during the meditation that when I wake up and come back I feel the urge to be angry at myself. My laugh surprises me instead. But I do wonder what’s going on, wonder if I should be worried. I sit for the last minutes with my eyes open, taking in the laden bougainvillea branches arching across the wooden fence and the mountains behind them. I hear a mourning dove calling from the roof of my trailer, the first call of the year. I cherish the longing and the full, rich sweetness of his voice. Maybe, I think, I don’t need to worry about my busy mind. Maybe I’m just ready to spring forth with the season. Maybe now I get to burst into bloom.
“Mother#%!#%!” I say. Or maybe I only think it, my angry fingers jabbing at the screen of my mini iPad in my lap. But the word surprises me, slipping out over such a small annoyance, ugly in my mouth. I’m on the bus heading to a class in mindfulness, of all things. I was making my morning rounds for work, and on one login page, an ad that was slow to load kicked me out of the keyboard, twice. Each time my still-typing fingers triggered the ad and sent me to another page, watching my wireless icon spinning, waiting to get back to the login page to try again. It’s the eighth day of my juice cleanse, so maybe I can blame my obscenity, the disproportionate response, on that, on some edginess from expelling toxins, maybe, more quick to jump to annoyance. Over the years, I’ve tamed my tendency to swear, especially in company. But at home the words still tend to tumble out when I get mad. When this one slips out, it feels so automatic it makes me wonder if I’m doing this all the time without noticing. And then I get all excited. I read an article in the L.A. Times a couple of weeks ago about how Lent had moved into the secular world, how people were posting on Facebook about what they planned to give up this year for those 40 days, everything from Dr. Pepper to texting to wine to social media. One woman planned to give up being self-righteous about her political views. Another is giving up gossiping. I’ve always been intrigued by Lent, too, and by Fat Tuesday that precedes it. (As a matter of fact, I started my cleanse on February 22nd, but I remember thinking if I failed, I’d have Fat Tuesday as a fall-back for my last hurrah of hamburgers and Häagen-Dazs. And Stella.) So when I read the article, I wanted to join in. But I’m already working on so many fronts, I didn’t know what to choose. Still, I tucked it in the back of my mind. And now on the bus it comes to me. I can give up obscenities! For a moment I wonder if I’m too late, and then I realize today is the first day of Lent. The timing is perfect. I sit there grinning like I won the Lotto. And in that lovely way the universe has, two days ago a colleague used an expression I was quite taken with and decided to steal. I get a chance to try it out later in the day. First, on the phone I already forget my new vow and say the s-word. But then when I hang up, still upset, I remember. “Holy cats!” I say. And when that isn’t quite enough, charming though I find it, I fumble for another word, more with my mouth than my mind. “Butterfingers,” I say. It is all I can come up with. And then I can’t help it. I have to laugh. And all of a sudden this sacrifice looks like it may have buried treasures. Maybe it will make me nice.